Karachi and the failure of Pakistan’s multi-culturalism

Published: July 15, 2011

Supporters of MQM burn an effigy representing Zulfikar Mirza during a protest in Karachi July 14, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS

The martial tradition of the Pakistani Army failed and the ‘’Islamization’’ drive of Zia which was the martial tradition merging with clerical power also failed . What did these processes fail at? They failed at creating some coherent narrative of Pakistani citizenship that was pluralistic and open enough to absorb the different ethnic, linguistic and indeed tribal affiliations of the Pakistani citizenry.

State sponsored Islam (which in itself is quite unprecedented within the body of Islamic history and literature) has not created any form of universal Pakistani citizenship.

The Karachi conflict is the result of decades long alienation, mistrust and hatred towards different linguistic-ethnic groups that has never been resolved but brushed under the carpet. The martial tradition never engaged with it and there was a lazy and naive presumption that ‘’Islam’’ as instituted by Zia’s rule would quash any sort of quarrel.

Conflict arises not because there is diversity but when society is unable to deal with pluralism. Conflict arises not because people hold different opinions but because people are unable to tolerate different opinions. Difference itself is never the cause of conflict but the inability to reconcile difference, to respect it and to cherish it is the root cause of conflict.

The lazy slogans of the Islamist parties in Pakistan deliberately try to confuse these issues. They deliberately try to portray ‘difference’ itself, be it ethnic or religious as the cause of conflict and gain much support by talking of an imagined, mythic, homogeneous and utopian Islamic identity. The result has been that in the words of AbdolKarim Soroush the Iranian philosopher, “the Islam of identity” has overruled and quashed the, “Islam of truth”. Increasingly, appeals to an “Islamic identity” are becoming the normative justification for resistance to human rights legislation in Pakistan rather than reasoned debate on Scripture, ethics and theology.

But the Karachi conflict itself was always a time bomb waiting to happen.

Pakistan has never resolved the issue of pluralism and diversity. In essence,Pakistan suffers as much from a failure of ‘’multiculturalism’’ as it does from a failure of religious tolerance. We associate ‘’multiculturalism’’ as some sort of political development in Western societies but Pakistanis should also now grapple with this idea as a means to resolve conflict. Indeed multiculturalism is nowadays associated with the racial and religious tensions that engulf the main urban areas of European cities. It has become fashionable for European politicians to curry favour from the far right by smashing the idea of multiculturalism. Successively from David Cameron to Angela Merkel, European leaders have literally queued up to herald the failure of multiculturalism.

The European experience may not be encouraging but multiculturalism itself as an idea of coexistence and pluralism is worth defending. The policies and structural implementation can be debated of course but the idea itself is valid.  Also critics of European multiculturalism fail to notice the other relative successes of the idea in fostering harmony.Pakistan needs its own distinct brand of  multiculturalism now more than ever.

The choice of whether one is a “Pakistani” or a member of a particular ethnicity is a false choice. Having said that, in modern nation states, there is no one ‘’national community’’ instead we have many communities that are defined by the ties of faith, tradition, ethnicity or language. These differences can never be dismantled or eroded – this is the reality. But they can be resolved and you can foster an ethic of respect and pluralism, but politicians of each of the three political parties (MQM and ANP and to a certain extent the PPP) have to set an example. The underhand politics of each these parties have set fire to this deadly conflict.

This will require Pakistanis to radically rethink the role of the State. The State should not be ”large” in terms of imposing a particular code of morality, faith or identity. The State should now be reconsidered as a legal mediator that can broker agreement between different groups – this is one point of what it means to be a ”secular state”.

Then there is the  issue of authority. Do the ethnic groups that form the bulk membership of the ANP, PPP and MQM believe that these parties represent their grievances and worries? Is it right that a political party should be the exclusive authority of representation for a particular cultural community? Are we not by assuming a single political party represents a particular community putting those people in a rigid ideological box and hence removing any possibility of dialogue?

We have become so obsessed with religion that we have forgotten cultural rivalries and cultural sectarianism that is politically mobilised by parties such as the MQM, PPP, and ANP. The collective cultural identity that encompasses ethnicity and language has become a political weapon that provides the underlying foundations for the logic of the ensuing political violence.

In my opinion the religious turmoil in Pakistan is a symptom, rather than a cause of the current crisis. Religious extremism and radicalism has been a response to the failure of developing a robust working democratic system that upholds liberal rights and abides by the parameters of the constitution. The constant interference of the Army has disrupted the political process and in many ways due to its action in Balochistan merely fuel the ethnic roots of Pakistan’s crisis.

The Taliban according to the reading of some scholars purports to be a Pashtun nationalist movement although it should be said that many within that ethnic community have vehemently opposed the Taliban and have some have lost their lives as well in the process. It should be remembered that Pakistan’s crisis has always been the inability to resolve provincial and ethnic tensions and that religious extremism is merely a response to these failures.

The failure to create a platform or some sort of public space where members of different ethnic communities can discuss their issues without fear of retribution or with a sense of deep mistrust and hostility has created a state of paralysis in Karachi.

We need to hear the voices of sanity from the different ethnic and linguistic communities caught up amongst this ruthless political violence.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/needroos Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    Great write up!! I am quite worried about how the intolerance is surely going to spread throughout urban centers. The ghettos, the divisions, fragmentation of communities along economic lines, gated communities and the rise of suburbia is going to make society more inward looking and politically and socially conservative. Karachi’s paralysis will eventually be repeated in other cities. The stark inequalities between the haves and the havenots in Isb/Rwp, the suburbs around Lahore etc, has created communities with little tolerance, appreciation or understanding of people who do not belong to similar ethnic or economic backing. This will take a long evolutionary process for the violence to come to an end in the best of cases. In our situation where the nations masters actively reinforce divisions it will take even longer. Question is are things going to get worse before they get better? Sadly, I think it will. Recommend

  • parvez

    The more one analyses the situation the more complex it seems to become and the harder it becomes to find an answer. One has to simplify it and I feel it simply boils down to poor governance. Those who govern have to provide a decent living standard ( providing the basic needs of a healthy society ) improving yearly, so that one can have some pride in saying I am a Pakistani.
    For this to happen the dual nationality law / rule that exists must be enforced by the Election Commission that disqualifies one if he holds dual citizenship. Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    The real issue with whole Pakistan and its unrest I feel is feudalism mentality. I think it is the main hindrance toward multiculturalism. India was fortunate as they abolished feudalism. In Khyber Khans in Sindh Waderas in Punjab Chodhry and Baluchistan Sardars. These landlord make 5% of the popoulation and 75% of political elite. Be it Karachi Islamabad Peshawar Quetta they feel like masters over masses there strength is in their ethnicity.
    It is rightly said no one political party should select on the basis of ethnicity bu what can you say when a party named AWAMI favors Pakhtoons and discriminate against others. Or A party named Mutahidda takes up all the indian immigrant’s of partition.
    Multiculturism is evident in the streets of Karachi as one spots late night sitting on tea shop nearly all operated by Pakhtoons and in transportation mostly run by Pakhtoons, markets mostly by Memons, Gujtatis and Aga-Khanis, municipal mostly run by Punjabis and Sindhis.
    Its is just political parties that create hate among Karachiites for their own vested interests.

  • Truthbetold

    “They failed at creating some coherent narrative of Pakistani citizenship that was pluralistic and open enough to absorb the different ethnic, linguistic and indeed tribal affiliations of the Pakistani citizenry.”

    Why is this a surprise? If pluralism was the intent, then there was no need for partition. Pakistan was created to protect the power and wealth of the Muslim elite of pre-partition India. Religious and racial bigotry was used to stir up the Muslims in order to achieve this goal. It was claimed that Muslims were a “different” nation. Never mind that most South Asian Muslims were Hindu converts.

    Intolerance and bigotry against non-Muslims were built into the very creation of Pakistan. Jinnah was just a puppet used by the Muslim elite of erstwhile British India and so what he said about pluralism soon after the formation of Pakistan was of no real substance. The die of bigotry was already cast.

    I do congratulate the author for the thought-provoking article. I did not mean to diminish the e author’s good intent by my comment above.Recommend

  • Huma

    Blah Blah….blame Zia…..Bla Blah….blame Islam….Blah Blah….blame lazy Islamist parties…. Seriously, don’t you guys have anything more to say apart from rehashing the same old limp “analysis”?? Surprise us some time. Recommend

  • http://www.allahsword.com/ free islamic books

    I am looking for free islamic books about marriage issues. Please suggest me from where I can get these books online.Recommend

  • Ahmad Ali


    Political analysis isn’t about ”surprising” the reader, if you want to be surprised then I suggest you go read some fiction. This is the real world…..Recommend

  • Maj-Gen Charles James Napier

    “I believe so perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to be misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another”Recommend

  • Frank

    The author does not know the meaning of the term ‘multiculturalism’. Pakistan is not a multicultural country. Only one culture has a right to exist in Pakistan. All the others are being throttled both by the state and the Karachi-based media.Recommend

  • Ahmad Ali Khalid

    @ Frank

    As a sociological and anthropological fact Pakistan is multicultural. It is obvious that no political settlement or solution has been reached that can mediate or broker harmony between these different cultural communities.

    Multiculturalism therefore should be adopted as a policy mechanism that can guarantee social harmony. Though it should be said that these sort of cultural conflicts rarely yield a conclusive winner – the whole process is a net sum loss – everyone loses out. It is therefore a matter of pragmatism that these divergent groups come together to at least flesh out a political settlement.

    The real business of buidling bridges, dialogue and fostering respect is a long term consideration. In the short term some sort of political settlement is needed. Recommend

  • Ahmad Ali Khalid

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos:

    There are no alternative centres of political power for those who are part of certain cultural and ethnic communities to invest in apart from the brutal status quo. The issue facing Karachi is more a crisis of authority – who speaks for a certain ethnic group? What is the nature of authority in ethno-cultural communities?

    The situation can only deteriorate, until an alternative is put forward. A new brand of civilian politics is needed. Recommend

  • Aftab

    Seems to me as if people find “SAWAB/THAWAB” in criticizing Islam’s concept of “Ummah”. Let’s discuss Islam before discussing Pakistan, Do we really believe that Islam is the best way to practice our lives? Or this is just a symbolic nature for us, Pakistanis?Recommend

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Jahanzaib-Haque/149352001744540?ref=ts Jahanzaib Haque

    Great read – spot on.


  • http://sofaykaaaloo.blogspot.com/ Shahzaib Quraishi

    The failure of Pakistan’s multi-culturism? We can’t even tolerate people from our own culture/religion/sect/tribe. We have an inherent need to differentiate, and subsequently discriminate against anyone who is ever so slightly different. Recommend

  • pardesi

    @ Ahmad Ali

    Can you be precise and say – failure of Islam once and for all?Recommend

  • rehmat

    If the Dr says you have diabetes and prescribes, exercise, diet change and medication and you simply refuse to follow the advise, at the next check-up the diabetes will be worse and the Dr. will be forced to give the same diagnosis but tell you that your diabetes is more severe. The fact that Dr. is repeating himself does not indicate that the Dr. is incompetent and not finding new illness. Same thing with diagnosis of intolerance. The steps needed to reverse this trend are not visible and the evidence of increasing intolerance is manifested through increased terrorism, sectarian strife, mob lynching etc.

    If the symptoms are unchanged and in fact increase in frequency/severity, why would you expect to be surprised by the diagnosis?Recommend

  • My Name is Khan

    @ Author – great article but I think we have to be honest that our underlying issue is that we feel the need to be anti-India. Since partition, our leaders have been trying to justify the existence of a huge military and intelligence agencies because “Imperialist India” wants to take over Pakistan. Let’s be honest – they don’t want Pakistan. We are a country with massive corruption (like India) and massive terrorism (unlike India). They don’t want us. We still have idiots like Zaid Hamid who think we should invade India to fulfill some b.s. prophecy.

    @ Frank and Huma – you are the typical ultraradical, terrorist-sympathizer types that represent some of the worst of our Pakistani educated middle class. The fact that intelligent people like you are brainwashed makes me worry about the future of our home. Islam is not a culture but a religion. Sindhi, Punjabi, Baloch, Pashtun, Kashmiri – these are cultures. Cultures are defined by language primarily and secondarily by traditions and customs. If by “Islamic Culture” you think that means being Saudi, please move to Mecca. I’m sure you will be very happy there. The rest of us want to speak in our mother tongues while eating our native delicacies and celebrating our marriages in the way our ancestors did. We have a culture and we should just respect other cultures.Recommend

  • Cynthia

    Ahmad Ali….I am not Pakistani but read your article with great interest. It was rational and eloquent in the manner that I think what you described applies to all countries. Of course each country has it’s differences in the way it is intolerant, but the causes and the solutions you presented seem a good general template. I agree with you that tolerance (dare we say enjoyment) of diversity creates the best atmosphere for all people to flourish…and that politicians who stir up intolerance to appeal to groups of people (for votes) are anti-patriotic to the health of their countries …all over the world. I also want to commend all the replies to this article..I read them with interest….good and thoughtful debate on all opinions. Thanks all for good read today …. I learned something and I was encouraged to look at my own intolerance….and that makes a good day.Recommend

  • Norwegian Pakistani

    I find the title of this post very misleading. According to my perception there is no concept of Multicuturalism in Pakistan. Religion (Islam) is being imposed on people, majority of Pakistanies feel the obligation to act as ‘Moral Police’ over everyone they know judging whether one is Good Muslim or not. Different languages of Pakistan are not promoted. In schools Urdu and English are imposed on children in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, NWFP and Azad Kashmir. There are no laws and rights to protect minorities, especially those who are non-Muslims and the list goes on. There is no concept of Multiculturalism in Pakistan. How can you claim it has failed?Recommend